Monthly Archives: October 2013

Disguising power as piety

In an article for Christianity Today, Bret Mavrich recounts his visit to Lamppost Farm. Lamppost was founded by Steve and Mel Montgomery as a nonprofit “ministry” where Steve attempts “to kill chickens as God intended—and, by that, connect people with the goodness of God and his grace that overcomes human sin and limitations.”

Mavrich describes the chicken slaughter process and recalls how Steve coached the various participants past their disinclination to kill. After the second killing doesn’t go as smoothly as the first, Mavrich admits to Montgomery that he is disturbed. Montgomery replies, “It’s supposed to be. We’re not supposed to take a life and then say, Well, whatever. That’s not how we’re made.” Mavrich writes:

That simple truth resonates long afterward. Everything at the farm, from Steve and me to the chicken to the land, has a Creator. And because of this, I hold no ultimate mastery over the bird I have just killed, because it wasn’t mine to begin with. The hen was a gift. I’m intimately bound to a chicken in a relationship because I took its life, in the sight of God and with my own hands, to nourish mine.

Suddenly, I’m thinking new thoughts, the kind the Montgomerys had hoped for. Food doesn’t come from a grocery store. The grocery store delivers to me, a consumer, not chickens but pieces of chickens, without a trace of the process, much less the living animal. Food doesn’t even come from Lamppost Farm, a sustainable, gmo-free, free-range paradise that’s as close to Eden as you could hope for in Ohio. No, food comes from God.

Here, at Lamppost, knowing this enhances what you’re eating because every hen is a gift, and has been received as such and treated as such every step of the way. And if we’ve overlooked gifts as bountiful as these, where else have we missed God reaching out to us in small ways, maybe all the time?

This is pious sentiment designed to obscure a relationship of power and dominance.

Mavrich claims not to have mastery of the chicken he killed. But he clearly does. He took the chicken from the cage, hung it upside down, and slit its throats. He’s holding the knife; he has the power. I’m sure there were God-fearing Southerners who regarded their African slaves as gifts entrusted to their care by a gracious God. It doesn’t make it true.

The chicken was not a gift. It did not offer itself and God did not hand it to Mavrich. Mavrich willingly participated in a system that raises and slaughters chickens simply because we enjoy the taste of their flesh. We have engineered this system – even to the point of altering the DNA of chickens so that they will produce more white meat. We use chickens to satisfy our desires. Invoking God as giver is pure post hoc rationalization.

Yes, I’m a vegan. Yes, I’m involved in efforts to rescue farmed animals. And, yes, many people regard those things as slightly crazy. But let us at least be honest about the exercise of our power and not pass it off as God’s design. That’s been done before, with disastrous results.

Whatever walked there, walked alone.

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House. Now that’s how you start a ghost story.

“The ship went plunging all night long and through the dawn”

Telemachus climbed aboard.
Athena led the way, assuming the pilot’s seat
reserved astern, and he sat close beside her.
Cables cast off, the crew swung to the oarlocks.
Bright-eyed Athena sent them a stiff following wind
rippling out of the west, ruffling over the wine-dark sea
as Telemachus shouted out commands to all his shipmates:
“All lay hands to tackle!” They sprang to orders,
hoisting the pinewood mast, they stepped it firm
in its block amidships, lashed it fast with stays
and with braided rawhide halyards hauled the white sail high.
Suddenly wind hit full and the canvas bellied out
and a dark blue wave, foaming up at the bow,
sang out loud and strong as the ship made way,
skimming the whitecaps, cutting toward her goal.
All running gear secure in the swift black craft,
they set up bowls and brimmed them high with wine
and poured libations out to the everlasting gods
who never die — to Athena first of all,
the daughter of Zeus with flashing sea-gray eyes —
and the ship went plunging all night long and through the dawn.

The Odyssey, trans Fagles

Montaigne: Our death is no great thing

When we judge of the assurance of other men in dying, which is without doubt the most noteworthy action of human life, we must be mindful of one thing: that people do not easily believe that they have reached that point. Few men die convinced that it is their last hour; and there is no place where the deception of hope deludes us more. It never stops trumpeting into our ears: “Others have certainly been sicker without dying; the case is not as desperate as they think; and at worst, God has certainly worked other miracles.”

And this comes about because we set too much importance on ourselves. It seems that the universe somehow suffers by our annihilation and that it has compassion for our state; because our vision, when altered, represents things to itself as being likewise altered, and we think they are failing it in proportion as it is failing them; like travelers at sea, for whom mountains, countrysides, cities, heaven, and earth move right along with them and at the same pace:

We leave the port, and lands and towns retreat. [Virgil]

Who ever saw old age not praising times past and blaming the present, charging the world and the ways of men with its own misery and chagrin?

The old man shakes his head and heaves a sigh,
Compares the present day with days gone by,
Praises his father’s lot, and to satiety
Prates of the dead, and of their piety. [Lucretius]

We drag everything along with us.

When it follows that we consider our death a great thing, and one which does not pass so easily, nor without solemn consultation of the stars: so many gods in an uproar about one single head [Seneca]. And we think so all the more, the more we prize ourselves. What? Should so much learning be lost, with so much damage, without the special concern of the destinies? Does a soul so rare and exemplary cost no more to kill than a plebian and useless one? This life, which protects so many others, on which so many other lives depend, which employs so many people in its service, which fills so many places, is it displaced like one that holds only by its one single knot? Not one of us is convinced enough that he is only one.

Montaigne, “Judging the death of others”

Montaigne on Skepticism

Why, they [the Pyrrhonists] say, since among the dogmatists one is allowed to say green, the other yellow, are they not also allowed to doubt? Is there anything that can be proposed for you to admit or deny, which it is not legitimate to consider ambiguous? And where others are swept – either by the custom of their country, or by their parental upbringing, or by chance – as by a tempest, without judgment or choice, indeed most often before the age of discretion, to such or such an opinion, to the Stoic or Epicurean sect, to which they find themselves pledged, enslaved, and fastened as to a prey they have bitten into and cannot shake loose – to whatever doctrine they have been driven, as by a storm, to it they cling as to a rock [Cicero] – why shall it not be granted similarly to these men to maintain their liberty, and to consider things without obligation and servitude? The more free and independent because their power to judge is intact [Cicero].

Is it not an advantage to be freed from the necessity that curbs others? Is it not better to remain in suspense than to entangle yourself in the many errors that the human fancy has produced? Is it not better to suspend your conviction than to get mixed up in these seditious and quarrelsome divisions?

What am I to choose? What you like, provided you choose! There is a stupid answer, to which nevertheless all dogmatism seems to come, by which we are not allowed not to know what we do not know.

[The Pyrrhonian] expressions are: “I establish nothing; it is no more thus than thus, or than neither way; I do not understand it; the appearances are equal on all sides; it is equally legitimate to speak for and against. Nothing seems true, which may not seem false.” Their sacramental word is ἐποχή, that is to say, “I hold back, I do not budge.” Those are their refrains, and others of similar substance. Their effect is a pure, complete, and very perfect postponement and suspension of judgment. They use their reason to inquire and debate, but not to conclude and choose. Whoever will imagine a perpetual confession of ignorance, a judgment without leaning or inclination, on any occasion whatever, he has a conception of Pyrrhonism.

Montaigne, “Apology for Raymond Sebond”

Montaigne: “we must tread this stupid vanity underfoot”

Of this there is general agreement among all the philosophers of all sects, that the sovereign good consists in tranquillity of soul and body. But where do we find it?

In short, ‘neath Jove alone the wise man dwells:
A king of kings, free, honored, handsome, wealthy;
Save when he has a cold, above all healthy. (Horace)

It seems in truth that nature, for the consolation of our miserable and puny condition, has given us as our share only presumption. This is what Epictetus says, that man has nothing properly his own but the use of his opinions. We have nothing but wind and smoke for our portion. The gods have health in reality, says philosophy, sickness in thought; man, on the contrary, possesses his goods in fancy, his ills in reality. We have been right to make much of the powers of our imagination, for all our goods exist only in dreams.

Hear this poor calamitous animal boast: “There is nothing,” says Cicero, “so sweet as the occupation of letters, of those letters, I mean, by means of which the infinity of things, the immense grandeur of nature, the heavens in this very world, the lands and the seas, are revealed to us. It is they that have taught us religion, moderation, greatheartedness, and that have wrested our soul out of the shadows to make it see all things, high, low, first, last, and middling. It is they that furnish us with means to live well and happily, and guide us to pass our age without displeasure and without pain.” Does not this man seem to be talking about the condition of God, ever-living and almighty? And as for the facts, a thousand little women in their villages have lived a more equable, sweeter, and more consistent life than his.

A god it was, great Memmius, a god,
Who was the first that way of life to find
Which we call wisdom now; whose artful mind
Brought life from such great storms, such depths of night,
Safe into such a haven, such clear light. (Lucretius)

Those are very magnificent and beautiful words; but a very slight accident put this man’s understanding into a worse state than that of the lowest shepherd, notwithstanding that Teacher-God [Epicurus] of his and that divine wisdom.

Nothing is so common as to encounter cases of similar temerity. There is not one of us who is so offended to see himself compared to God as he is to see himself brought down to the rank of the other animals: so much more jealous are we of our own interest than of that of our creator.

But we must tread this stupid vanity underfoot, and sharply and boldly shake the ridiculous foundations on which these false opinions are built. As long as he thinks he has some resources and power by himself, never will man recognize what he owes to his master; he will always make chickens of his eggs, as they say. He must be stripped to his shirt.

Montaigne, “Apology for Raymond Sebond”, trans. Donald Frame.

Lest anyone be tempted to declare Montaigne a radical, let’s be clear: only pages before this he was advocating submission to the authority of the Church and her teachings. Which means he’s not even a modernist, let alone a postmodernist. What strikes me as most valuable here is his 1. rejection of that cult of the philosophers which forgets they also shat and copulated and had runny noses, and 2. recognition that “a thousand little women in their villages” have lived every bit as well as Cicero. I suspect that, for Socrates (and those with similar turns of mind), an unexamined life would not have been worth living. Yet there have been millions of people unnoticed by history who have lived noble lives free of philosophical introspection.

The source of Montaigne’s appeal to the English (and to me)

William Hazlitt managed to squeeze Montaigne, as well as Rabelais, into a piece called “On Old English Writers and Speakers.” He justified their inclusion thus: “But these we consider as in a great measure English, or as what the old French character inclined to, before it was corrupted by courts and academies of criticism.”

If they like the Essays’ style, English readers were even more charmed by its content. Montaigne’s preference for details over abstractions appealed to them; so did his distrust of scholars, his preference for moderation and comfort, and his desire for privacy – the “room behind the shop.” One other other hand, the English also had a taste for travel and exoticism, as did Montaigne. He could show unexpected bursts of radicalism in the very midst of quiet conservatism: so could they. Much of the time he was happier watching his cat play by the fireside – and so were the English.

Then there was his philosophy, if you could call it that. The English were not born philosophers; they did not like to speculate about being, truth, and the cosmos. When they picked up a book they wanted anecdotes, odd characters, witty sallies, and a touch of fantasy. As Virgina Woolf said a propos Sir Thomas Browne, one of many English authors who wrote in a Montaignean vein, “The English mind is naturally prone to take its ease and pleasure in the loosest whimsies and humors.” This is why William Hazlitt praised Montaigne in terms guaranteed to appeal to an unphilosophical nation:

In taking up his pen he did not set up for a philosopher, wit, orator, or moralist, but he became all these by merely daring to tell us whatever passed through his mind, in its naked simplicity and force.

Sarah Bakewell, How to Live